On Broadway and Beyond, Revivals Bring Meaningful Revisions

Katy Ellis, Lucy McCormick (with microphone), Tama Phethean and Jordan Laviniere in “Wuthering Heights” at Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, which put a put a punk-rock spin on the brooding Emily Bronte novel (photo by Teddy Wolff)

Director put relevant new twists on productions ranging from “Death of a Salesman” to “Hamlet”

Just a year ago, such was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic that Broadway’s very survival seemed in danger. But these days, the future of the famous theater district seems secure, and theatergoers are also returning to venues beyond its boundaries.

And that means there’s plenty for adventurous theatergoers to explore and enjoy — from revivals of classic works to new productions that reflect the enduring vitality of theater.

McKinley Belcher III, Wendell Pierce and Khris Davis in “Death of a Salesman” (photo by Joan Marcus)

Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman and Sharon D. Clarke as his wife, Linda, in “Death of a Salesman” at the Hudson Theatre
(photo by Joan Marcus)

“Death of a Salesman,” playing through Jan. 15 at the Hudson Theatre, is indisputably an American classic. But in this unmissable production directed by Miranda Cromwell, the forlorn title character is intriguingly cast as a Black man. And in Wendell Pierce — perhaps best known for his role as detective Bunk Moreland in HBO’s “The Wire” — the play has a Willy Loman for the ages.

Pierce brings to Willy Loman a blend of bluster and vulnerability that renders his tragic trajectory all the more poignant. Also reinvigorating Miller’s masterwork is the portrayal of the Lomans as an African American family. As Willy’s loyal wife, Linda, Sharon D. Clarke matches Pierce for the ability to imbue her character with emotional truth.

Another essential American play, Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” was revived in a Public Theater production that featured the revisionist tweaks of director Robert O’Hara. Indeed, that risky but mostly successful approach only underlined the play’s enduring relevance.

Tonya Pinkins was spellbinding as family matriarch Lena Younger, who clashes with her son Walter Lee Younger (an excellent Francois Battiste) over how best to spend her late husband’s life insurance money. The drama turned on her decision to move the Youngers into a hostile white neighborhood.

Instead of ending “Raisin” on the usual hopeful note, O’Hara left the audience with a brief but unforgettably harrowing image much in keeping with the tenor of race relations in the post-George Floyd era.

“Wuthering Heights,” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, was the kind of show that patrons of the theater have come to expect — thrillingly engaging and boldly offbeat. Adapted and directed by Emma Rice for her theater company Wise Children, the British import was anything but a faithful take on its source material.

Rather, this interpretation of the turbulent relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff put a punk-rock spin on the brooding Emily Bronte novel, with the Gothic heroine — played to perfection by Lucy McCormick — at one point wielding a mic like a Victorian Patti Smith.

Indeed, in its sheer theatricality the show was nothing short of exhilarating. And its mellifluous score brought to mind the similarly imaginative “Hadestown.”

Another production that originated in London was clearly intended to upend audience preconceptions: “Hamlet,” directed by Thomas Ostermeier and starring Lars Eidinger as the Shakespearean antihero who is considered one of theater’s biggest acting challenges. But a crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater seemed to take Ostermeier’s avant-garde vision in stride.

This was “Hamlet” as it might have been imagined by a playwright more aligned with the theater of the absurd than the Elizabethan stage. Who expects the gravedigger scene to come across as an exercise in slapstick reminiscent of the quirkier moments in “Waiting for Godot”? But perhaps that was the point: to liberate the text to be reinterpreted from a vastly different and fascinatingly unique perspective.

“Topdog/Underdog,” running through Jan. 15 at the Golden Theatre, proved to be a spectacular showcase for a couple of rising actors who are both perhaps best known for their screen performances: Corey Hawkins (“Straight Outta Compton”) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (“Watchmen”).

The play about brothers with conflicting worldviews was a breakout success for Suzan-Lori Parks, who won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It also signaled a stylistic change for Parks, from abstract to more straightforward dramatic expression.

In the 20th-anniversary production directed by Kenny Leon, Hawkins and Mateen turn in vivid performances as the ironically named Lincoln and Booth, respectively. Yes, the reference to a presidential assassination slyly hints at the play’s conclusion. But it’s nonetheless stunning theater.

The Broadway Company of Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” at the Longacre Theatre (photo by Joan Marcus)

Brandon Uranowitz as Ludwig and David Krumholtz as Hermann in “Leopoldstadt” (photo by Joan Marcus)

Perhaps the most anticipated play of the season was “Leopoldstadt,” Tom Stoppard’s multi-generational look at a Jewish family forever changed by the Holocaust. Said to be Stoppard’s most personal — and perhaps final — play, its epic scope and contemplative tone have impressed critics who previously thought of the playwright as more inclined toward lighthearted, though frequently philosophical, fare.

Indeed, “Leopoldstadt,” at the Longacre Theatre through March 12, qualifies as something of an event — a work steeped in history that nonetheless resonates with contemporary anxieties about whether decades of social progress might be in danger of losing ground. If in fact it proves to be Stoppard’s final dramatic statement, it will also have left audiences with much to think about.

Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson is an arts writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is also host and creator of the jazz program, “Somethin’ Else,” on 107.3 FM and 96.3 HD2 in St. Louis.

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